OK, so it’s not necessarily just the Arsenal defeat where things have gone wrong recently.
One win since mid November – and that merely a late one in a below-par outing against MSK Zilina – has left Blues fans reeling at the club’s worst run of form for over a decade, and has left a number of questions in need of an answer.
Is it an issue with squad depth? Was the downward spiral triggered by Ray Wilkins’ unexpected and untimely departure? Have the players become too comfortable? Do they care? Are they good enough?
It can, and will, go on and on. With Bolton less than 48 hours away and in the knowledge that a win at Stamford Bridge will take them above the Blues, something of a crisis point has been reached.
A solid, if not great first half display at the Emirates Stadium on Monday night was soured by Alex Song’s breakthrough just before the break. Two goals in two minutes from Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott put the game beyond Carlo Ancelotti’s troubled troups, and despite a consolation from Branislav Ivanovic, the game was up.
Rather than go into a full scale report on proceedings – from a match Chelsea fans will quickly want to forget – let’s take a look at some of the on-field problems plaguing the current defending champions.
With just six goals in eight matches and no more than one in any domestic fixture since Blackburn away in October, there are clear and present issues in the attacking third.
Certainly, there is a knock-on effect from the build-up play elsewhere on the pitch, but to analyse things in more detail, let’s take a look at the reverse fixture this season, during happier times when goals from Didier Drogba and Alex secured a 2-0 win over the Gunners at Stamford Bridge.
Against this particular opponent perhaps more than any other, Drogba has thrived on being the physical battering ram in attack, and Chelsea duly play to his strengths.
Petr Cech’s excellent long distance kicks to the Ivorian are commonplace, especially in this fixture, but despite Johan Djourou doing a fine job this time around, Chelsea’s talismanic striker struggled for support.
At home, he was able to dominate his marker, but had help in the form of runners from midfield, looking to outnumber their red-shirted opponents and play in space.
However, come the re-match, Arsenal adapted well, giving him a tougher time in receiving the ball, whilst ensuring more men were back. Drogba had little help, with Lampard and Malouda in this example both having given up on the ball before it’s been won, whilst Kalou is far too wide.
If this approach wasn’t going to work, there were surely alternatives? Again, it’s a tale of two matches. With their tails up, confident and in form and with a lead at home, Ramires has plenty of options to choose from as he looks to advance the ball.
On Monday, John Obi Mikel takes up possession a little deeper, but looks forward to a sea of Arsenal shirts, with no easy ball forwards. Instead, he goes on to search out Drogba, gets it completely wrong, and concedes possession.
The importance of playing forward cannot be stressed enough. It is preached at every level and is the only way to play, as otherwise it affords the opposition too much of an opportunity to rest and stay in their shape. Rotating possession is fine, and a very integral part of success, but the ability to play further up the pitch is paramount.
Unfortunately, it has plagued the team in recent times. Here, Ramires once again – one who was superb in the home fixture but overlooked in the away one despite impressive recent form – has a multitude of options to choose from. He finds the out of picture Ashley Cole, who provides Drogba with the chance to open the scoring, which he duly does.
Deeper down the pitch at the Emirates, Kalou breaks up play in a similar manner to the above, but has nothing available, and once again, turns the ball over.
It doesn’t get a whole lot better when playing in and around the penalty area. Despite being almost outnumbered, Ancelotti’s forwards provide Ramires with options midway through the second half, with Drogba pulling away from his man into space to facilitate the through ball.
Contrastingly, early in the game, when attempting to seize an early initiative, Lampard turns in anticipation of attacking movement, only to once again find nothing. His options are to play the ball wide to Kalou, or to play backwards, allowing Arsenal to add to their strong numbers behind the ball.
By making it easy for the opposition to defend, Chelsea offer them confidence to go about their business at the other end, safe in the knowledge that there is little to worry about at the back.
Here, at 0-0 in both fixtures, the ball is worked wide to the full-back – something which was a clear target for Chelsea in both matches – who has time and space to fashion a delivery. At home, he has men on the move, ready to meet the ball, and a late arrival at the back post if necessary.
Away, he simply has Drogba. The header is won and he goes close, but the situation is in Arsenal’s favour, and once again they aren’t truly threatened.
Now, you might say that these situations have been selected to prove a series of points, whilst missing the bigger picture. That much might be argued, but there was a clear difference between winning and losing.
Arsenal dominated possession on both grounds, and had more attempts at goal. Chelsea scored twice from set pieces (which are Arsenal’s biggest flaw this season) – one direct and one indirect – but looked more threatening in attacking situations at home.
Playing a counter-attacking system each time, it was important to make full use of the ball when you have it. If possession is wasted – and Chelsea only had 39% of it in defeat – the match quickly becomes a one-sided affair.
It’s also not just about the two fixtures. With the exception of the away fixture at Birmingham, where 31 attempts at goal were recorded, things have been desperate in front of goal.
Injury problems haven’t helped, and the squad depth issue is another argument, but one which may prove harder to fix. These tactical issues, nothing more than providing more options for the man on the ball, can be addressed.
The players look petrified as of right now, afraid to make a mistake which could make things worse. With two tricky home fixtures coming in the next six days, the focus must be on improving morale, and getting numbers into attack.
And remember, win or lose, up the Blues.